Yellow Fever: Sheena Bora and Journalism Today

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“No cops! We can’t afford a scandal right now!”
– Probably everyone ever.

“Oh, but we do so love a good scandal.”
– Probably the more jaundiced side of Indian media.

The latest, sauciest story just in- Mother kills illegitimate daughter in collusion with her first husband for the latter’s refusal to part with money in an offshore account. Photos of daughter getting intimate with a man close to the mother also uncovered. (Allegedly anyway, but whatever bleeds, leads, right?) Stay tuned as we lead this already disturbed family into further dismay.

Now, this may sound like an exaggeration, and it probably is, but I’m fairly certain that most of those reading this would have gotten a hint of the story that is being referred to. For the uninitiated, this is in reference to the Sheena Bora murder case which has been the proverbial hot potato of many news dissemination agencies in these 2 months. Sheena Bora, the daughter (not sister) of Indrani Mukerjea (who is the wife of former Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea), and sister of Mikhail Bora. Sounds a bit too much, but this is only the tip of the iceberg of this intensely confusing family tree. Further facts aside, for which there is no paucity of coverage, the gist of the case is that Indrani, her previous husband Sanjeev Khanna, and driver Shyamvar Rai have been arrested for Sheena Bora’s murder on April 24th, 2012.

Look up the labyrinth-esque details of the case if you must, but what is most striking about it is the nature of its coverage- exorbitant and irresponsible, at the very least. A study by the CMS Media Lab found that 6 TV channels, including 2 English news channels, featured 113 stories and 61 special programmes on the murder in a fortnight. The study said DD News gave the least time to the case by allotting only 36 minutes during the entire study period. English news channels gave more coverage to the murder case. Between August 25th and September 8th, Times Now topped the coverage by devoting 948 minutes, followed by CNN IBN at 424 minutes. Among Hindi News Channels, Aaj Tak led the coverage by devoting 341 minutes, closely followed by ABP News and Zee News with 268 minutes and 263 minutes. And they say news is not as banal as are family drama channels.

The near-obsession with one story, while constantly focusing on the darker aspects of the involved parties’ intimate histories puts on a seeming tableau all that is wrong with media today. While the bridging gap between the public and the private spheres would be considered a progressive step in many lights, the abject broach on someone’s privacy is not one of them. Moreover, rather than focusing on the facts of the case, the tendency has been toward targeting the psyche of the actors involved and comments on morality/ethics which are largely subjective concepts, and this has been one of the biggest criticisms of celebrity journalism. The popularity of such pieces needs to be seen in a larger framework of our constantly viewing tragedy and humanitarian crises which may lead to de-sensitization toward them, in which case a raunchy celebrity drama seems a lot more glamorous than farmer suicides in rural India, or poverty and unemployment.

The plea, hence, is not now to ignore the case or its heinous facts altogether, but to re-evaluate what constitutes substantive news today, and realizing that certainly does not entail pushing an already troubled family into further ignominy. Yellow journalism is a plague of the past, let us not be the ones to partake in its modern manifestations.

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